Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Cold Morning

Ice crystals on the front door.

White Dutch clover.




Winter Landscapes

This is an estuary of the Charles River. Our yard backs up to the protected land surrounding this waterway. These photos were taken a few blocks away, where a road crosses the stream.

The view to the north:

The view to the south:

Winterberries hang over the water here and there.

The water is trying to escape its banks right now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ilex verticillata, Winterberry

This native plant is at the height of its beauty now. Winterberry is a deciduous holly that prefers marshy wood edges. The berries appear on the female plants around September or October.

In October, the leaves turn yellow and speckled.

The leaves have now dropped off, leaving behind the berries. This photo is of a small winterberry growing in my yard. It doesn’t have many berries. Elsewhere, in wild patches along the roads, dense thickets of winterberry are now blazing red against the bleak woods.

The berries will last until midwinter, and are an important food source for various bird species. It appears that other creatures eat them, as well, judging by the poo that was recently left in my yard. By the size of the dropping, I would guess it was either a raccoon or an opossum that made the deposit, but I am left wondering how such a heavy rodent could have climbed a slender winterberry.

The berries aren’t edible for humans, sadly.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I thought I might continue to dig today, but the ground is hard, and the air is bitterly cold.

Just last week I saw frogs swimming in our tiny pond.

Without leaves, the back yard seems wide open.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lycopodium Obscurum, or Not a Pine

These are not pine saplings. They are an ancient type of organism called clubmoss. Before trees ruled the land, clubmosses were the towering giants. Imagine one of these with a trunk four feet in diameter, standing as tall as an office building.

Common names for this humble survivor are “ground fir”, “tree clubmoss”, and “princess pine”. Its spores are the original photographer’s flash powder. Now, it is hard to find because it has been a popular winter decoration.

Princess pine is supposedly hard to transplant, but these seem to be doing well more than a month since Marna dug them for me. She scooped out a good chunk of their native soil when she dug them, and I planted them in the bed of perpetually-moist bog muck along my wooded path. So far that seem to like their new home.

[Update] As of May 2010, these guys are looking pitiful. I expect them to die eventually. Dang it. That will teach me to try the "big shovel full of dirt" method. Some plants (and plant-like organisms) need to be left where they grew.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Getting Colder

We wake up to frost and ice some mornings now.

We’re due to get our first snow flurries soon.

The strawberries have been tucked in for the winter.

Along the base of the front bed, I planted crocuses, creeping thyme, and wild violets.

To my surprise, the alyssum is still blooming, and the Swiss chard is still growing. And the saffron crocuses are coming along nicely.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


At my friend Marna’s recommendation, I picked up a book called “Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture”, by . And wow! I’m already a garden junkie, but this book had me wanting to run straight outside to move plants around.

Permaculture is a philosophy of agricultural land-use that calls for combining plants, animals, and structures in such a way as to maximize the number of uses for the land while increasing its self-sufficiency and minimizing maintenance by focusing on the use of perennial plants. It is a new word for a rather old idea. Consider, for example, the old woodland management practices of northern Europe. An acre of managed woods would contain a mixture of whole trees, grown for timber, and deciduous trees lopped off near the ground to encourage growth of new shoots, which were then harvested yearly for kindling and basket-making. The understory contained small fruiting trees such as nut and berry bushes, and other plants which fed foraging animals, which were in turn hunted.

In other words, a permaculture garden is almost more of an engineered forage space than traditional garden.

Without knowing it, I was already experimenting with permaculture this year.

This is what the raspberry bed looked like in October. It ranges from two to four feet wide. There are thirty raspberry bushes and twenty-five strawberry plants (which were purchased as collections from Nourse Farms) crammed together into the narrow space. Marigolds and some volunteer butter-and-eggs were used as ground cover and decoration between the raspberry bushes while they were getting established.

Here is what the space looked like back in April, with the raspberries just planted. Before we had built it up into this raised bed, it was a shallow strip of dirt that would be baked dry each day and could hardly support a few marigolds, even if heavily watered.

Now it only occasionally needs water, because the soil is deep, and the leaves keep it shaded. It won't need applications of bark mulch dumped on it every year, because the plants themselves are the groundcover. And there is only minimal weeding to do, now that the plants are established enough to out-compete the weeds.

As long as the birds and the neighborhood kids don’t eat all of the berries, they are welcome to share, because this isn’t just for us – it’s for the wildlife and the community, too. And if this year’s unexpectedly early raspberries are any indication, we are going to have far more berries than we can eat.

But back to permaculture. Central to this approach to growing food is the idea of plant “guilds”, or groups of plants which can be grown together for their mutual benefit. My raspberry guild is rather simplistic compared to what is suggested in Hemenway’s book, but it’s a start, and so far it seems effective. Another example of a guild would be a fruit tree that provides shade to assorted berry bushes, between which were edible mulch-producing plants such as rhubarb, nitrogen-fixing ground cover such as clover, a deep-rooting flower such as lupine to help break up clay-heavy soil, and bulbs to look pretty in the Spring. (I would like to plant such a guild in the front yard eventually.)

Because the suburban landscape is so new, and the variety of available plants is so different, modern permaculture is in its infancy. There is a lot of experimentation to be done before it will be known which plant combinations work best in suburban lots in North America.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Back to Work

I regret that I haven’t had the time to post here more of late. With the new baby, I have been too wonderfully busy to think much about photography or plants. The beautiful Autumn colors came and went, and I’m grateful that I got out and took those last photos when I did, because the leaves fell down promptly afterward. We have already had a few nights that left ice on the top of our trusty bucket, but the days still occasionally bounce back up to Summery sunshine.

October is never a good month for me. This year was extra tough, because I was facing the end of maternity leave. I was nervous about putting Gabe in daycare, and anxious about resuming my job. But both went better than I could have hoped for. So for the past three weeks I have been deliriously happy and very busy. I have only ventured out to the garden on the weekends.

The witchhazel flowers were the final hurrah in the garden last year, but this year the alyssums outlasted them. And in addition to that, the saffron crocus bulbs I planted are just now growing. Will they flower this absurdly late in the season? I have trouble believing it, but supposedly they will. I’ll be sure to get photos if they do!

I have been slowly working on next year’s project: bamboo! In front of the house I am digging a hole the size of a hot tub. I bought a roll of plastic root barrier to keep the bamboo contained. In the Spring I’ll have some good soil delivered to fill the hole, and then I’ll be planting a 25-foot variety of bamboo that will eventually provide us with sturdy poles for the tomatoes. This variety of bamboo also produces tasty edible shoots. It isn’t native, but the native bamboo turns out to be not so suited to our needs.

Hopefully this weekend I’ll have some time for photos!